Normally, given the politically polarising times we live in, you’d expect an apology offered by a public figure for comments he made demonising a segment of the population would be framed as sign of hope – a corrective to the tribal, populist fever infecting the public discourse.
But, not at the Guardian. Or, at least, not when the figure expressing contrition is Israeli and associated with the left, and the former target of his incendiary rhetoric is on the right.
An article at the outlet by Ben Lynfield reports on Israeli pop artist Aviv Geffen, one of the most popular singers in the country, who apologised recently to settlers for past comments demonising religious Jews and those living in the territories. The piece (“Israeli rock star praises ‘brother’ settlers as he recants past views in move to right“, Aug. 29) explains the reconciliation between Geffen and residents of Judea and Samaria thusly:
The Israeli rock star Aviv Geffen, once a symbol of the country’s peace movement, has sparked controversy by apologising for his past views during a concert at a fervently nationalistic settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The public repentance on Thursday at the Beit El settlement can be seen as a cultural milestone in Israel’s move further to the right and another nail in the coffin of the more peace-oriented legacy of the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, with whom Geffen had been associated.
However, Lynfield doesn’t adequately explain what Geffen apologised for.
As Geffen himself acknowledged, he was saying hateful things about settlers, religious Jews and his country since he was 19. He called the settlements a “cancer”, referred to settlers a “psycho” and “criminal”, and once said he wanted to go back to 1967 lines, and bring back all the settlers, “dead or alive”.
As Lynfield does note, he also referred to the IDF as the Israel Death Forces.
Though Lynfield quotes Geffen’s explanation that “As I have matured, I’m very sorry about it. I learned a lot of things and I am here out of love and unity.”, the reporter seems unmoved by the artist’s embrace of tolerance – and his flight from moral certainty – writing:
Referring to settlers as “brothers”, he singled out the hard-right, pro-settler interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, as having helped him open up to new people and viewpoints.
As part of his new direction, Geffen appeared on Sunday night in Kedumim, another hardline settlement, for a joint concert with Avraham Fried, a favourite performer of the ideological settlers who believe the West Bank, or as they call it Judea and Samaria, is a Jewish entitlement from God and that territorial compromise with the Palestinians negates the process of the coming of the messiah.
However, Fried is an American haredi singer, based in Brooklyn, who performs all over the world, and it’s unclear what Lynfield is basing his assertion about his putative popularity with “ideological settlers” opposed to territorial compromise.
Further, contrary to the Guardian’s suggestion, the beginning of Geffen’s change appears to date back to 2019, when he performed in the settlement of Elkana with popular religious Israeli singer Hanan Ben Ari, and said “All of us live in the Land of Israel and because of this I came here tonight.”
More evidence of his desire to reconcile with those he attacked can be seen when, in 2020, his son became a bar mitzvah. When asked at the time why, as a secular Israeli, the ceremony meant so much to him, he said: “There is an attachment [to the Torah] that is deeper than any ideology or politics, there is a connection to something that we must recreate and experience together.”
Also, in 2020, during the height of the corona pandemic, Geffen gave a performance streamed live to fans across Israel. He dedicated one of his songs to residents of the religious city of Bnei Brak, locked down at the time due to a high number of COVID-19 infections. He said, “Leave Bnei Brak alone, they’re not to blame”. Following the concert, Geffen was moved to tears when soon received 420 thank-you messages from residents of the city. Geffen then started hanging out in Bnei Brak, talking to the locals.
As a Jerusalem Post blogger observed about Geffen’s experience: “Forging relationships with haredim, seeing the real people, the real community”, as opposed to an abstraction, was revelatory for the singer.
Moreover, his first public apology was in 2021, when he performed (for the first time) with Avraham Fried at Sultan’s Pool Auditorium in Jerusalem, and said, during a media interview, concerning his wish to apologise for hateful comments he made about religious people: “I’m an atheist, but it’s time for peace and to respect each other. Covid has amplified the divide in our nation. Israel is a delicate canvas of love. We really separated and that is a pity. We are brothers at the end of the day.”
Also, in 2021 he began performing for free at army bases throughout the country.
A few months ago, he gave another perspective on his transformation, explaining his apology for statements from the past: “I realized that I painted an entire public in very strong and very dark colors, out of ignorance. I grew up and went through a lot of mental things with myself.”
Was Geffen’s process of engaging in teshuva (repentance) a move to the right? Lynfield answers this question in a subsequent paragraph:
Israel has swung so far to the right since the Rabin era that the word peace is avoided by politicians and settlers have become mainstream.
Here we see the Guardian reporter’s profound bias, a political persuasion that leads him to believe that Geffen’s atonement for hateful comments about his fellow countrymen illustrates Israel’s far right swing.
This, at best, is an extremely facile analysis.
Though Israelis have varying opinions about communities across the green line, the overwhelming majority – left and right – don’t actively demonise them as Geffen did, as most recognise that those who reside in West Bank communities do so different reasons – some which are ideological, others more practical – and can’t be painted with a broad brush.
But, even more telling is the Guardian contributor’s mantra about Israel turning right since Rabin’s death.
As we’ve argued previously, this is a profound misunderstanding of the events over the past couple decades. Israel didn’t stop cherishing peace. (In fact, a plurality of Israelis still support two states.) They merely responded to the Palestinian rejection of peace offers, the reign of terror known as the 2nd Intifada which followed one such peace offer, and Hamas’s rise following the withdrawal from Gaza, by re-examining their previous belief that settlements are the main obstacle to peace.
In other words, most Israelis adjusted their views based on new, and incalculably traumatic events in the 2000s that undermined the fundamental premises which guided the country’s previous policy decisions.
Israelis haven’t moved right, at least not in the Guardian’s pejorative use of that term suggests, and they haven’t turned their backs on peace. Most have merely refused to hold on to political dogma that was proven inconsistent with reality.
Interestingly, nothing has been reported that would suggest that, despite Geffen’s apologies for his hurtful comments, he’s moved ideologically to the right. He seems no more likely to vote for, say, Likud, than he was prior to his reconciliation with his former foes. It seems, rather, by his own admission, that he simply grew up and reached the mature conclusion that you can vehemently disagree with your political foes while accepting their humanity – viewing them as opponents, rather than enemies.
Tellingly, Geffen himself tweeted the Guardian article about him, but added his own words as a rejoinder to Lynfield’s claim that he moved right.
— Aviv Geffen (@avivgeffen) August 29, 2022
In short, Geffen evolved, and began to see shades of gray, which necessitated a rejection of his former ‘good Israeli’ vs ‘bad Israeli’ paradigm.
Given that Guardian coverage of the region is so dependent on that moral binary, it’s not at all surprising that their reporter chose to frame Geffen’s personal evolution as a devolution. After all, nothing unsettles Guardian journalists more than new information about Israel or its citizens that challenges the rigid ideology which inform their coverage.